This article was originally published in a slightly different form at Raging Bull Movie Reviews.
Charlie Chaplin said he “only felt threatened by Harry Langdon.” Samuel Becket wanted Langdon to act in his experimental film, but had to use Buster Keaton after Langdon’s early death. James Agee, Kevin Brownlow, Walter Kerr, Robert Youngson, Harold Lloyd and Mack Sennett were among those who sang high praises for Langdon’s art.
Langdon’s characterization expressed the most pronounced silence of the era’s clowns. This is why, despite his fans’ claims (seen on the documentary included on “Lost and Found: The Harry Langdon Collection”), sound proved completely disastrous for him. Langdon’s persona was only suited to the abstract plane that silent cinema offered.
It is easy to see why he appealed so readily to the Surrealists. His persona is dreamlike, subconscious, otherworldly. Langdon’s man-child seems an elfin id. Silence and make-up were existential turpentine for Langdon, removing him, layer-by-layer, from the world as we know it.
Of course, for many, turpentine is unbearable, and Langdon haters will pull out their hair, waiting for him to do something. Even his blink was lethargic. Frank Capra, Langdon’s one-time director and permanent detractor once bitched, “It takes him an hour to get started.” Langdon was the master of anti-reaction and he did more with less than anyone, Keaton included. That’s the magic of the Langdon persona. With the barest minimum, he was able to etch a c
haracterization so vivid, it is second only to Chaplin in identifiability. Langdon’s unique personality accelerated his stardom.
The cause of Langdon’s equally quick fall, after a mere three years, is debated. Certainly, that same personality, combined with his admirable risk-taking, ego, and poor business skills, was partially responsible. But, after he left Sennett for the fascistic First National, both studios released a plethora of his films; the result was an onslaught of Langdon product in 1927, and his considerable fan base went into massive overdose.
This stands in direct contrast to Capra’s self-serving claim that he alone fashioned Langdon’s screen persona. Capra further claimed that the actor had no true understanding of his own persona and when Langdon ventured into edgier territory, over Capra’s populist-minded objections, the star simply imploded. With sound inevitably around the corner, combined with Langdon’s advanced age in comparison to younger rivals, his desire for rapid experimentation is understandable. The risks he took produced an artistic triumph, but a commercial disaster.
Steve Martin tried something similar with a brief series of films that pushed his own boundaries. When the payoff proved commercially lackluster, Martin predictably receded back into the safety of the mainstream. Langdon received no chance for reprieve with First National.
He alone was blamed for the disappointing box office results of Three’s a Crowd (1927) and The Chaser (1928). His third self-directed feature for the studio, Heart Trouble (1928), was never released and reportedly was destroyed. By most accounts, it would have proven to be his commercial rebound effort. Lamentably, the film seems to be forever lost.
Harry Langdon was and remains an idiosyncratic, enigmatic, minimalist “anti-clown.” For many a novice, he appears a sort of inexplicably surreal Continue reading LOST AND FOUND: THE HARRY LANGDON COLLECTION